It’s certainly not the most romantic destination, but when we decided on Chile instead of Argentina upon leaving Bolivia, I knew just where I wanted to go — Chuquicamata! It’s not everyday that you can just stop by one of the biggest open pit mines in the world. It’s not on the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, but this active mine is a testament to human ingenuity and development.
The volcanic veins of magma which have formed these hills of the Atacama contain copper. American mining companies discovered this here over a hundred years ago. Since then, operations were transferred to the Chilean State, but the mining hasn’t slowed down a bit. Today, a third of Chile’s economy depends on copper.
Mining is a fascinating and somehow horrifying industry. This is a place of absolute superlatives. Trucks larger than in your wildest dreams, moving weights unimaginable to get at a precious metal. Well, in the case of copper not technically precious. This base mental has a current spot per pound of just under US$3. In it’s path, mining leaves behind huge waste and destruction. But we all want our stuff… Christmas lights, phone cords, electronics of all sorts, including whatever device you’re using to read this blog, contains some copper.
Environmentally, the place is a nightmare. A mere one percent of the rock they extract here is actually copper. Some additional gases and minerals are yielded in processing and we were credibly assured that nothing which can be sold goes to waste. The guide admits they haven’t really found a good solution for the dust which results after the rocks are pulverized, and water is a real issue.
Situated in one of the driest deserts in the world, the Atacama, water is a serious problem. Massive amounts are needed to process copper. On the tour, our guide told us that a new law was passed that only allows mines to use sea water for processing (background). Water trucks are everywhere along the highway (don’t even begin to think about the carbon footprint the exhaust of all this is causing…).
They are working to find better solutions, but it seems the mining brings as many challenges as it does solutions. (Interesting article.)
In Chuquicamata, they have set a target to move operations underground to exploit the new finds located below the current pit. The massive trucks will stop burning their diesel at three gallons a minute, and instead conveyors will lift the rocks to the top.
Nevermind the fascinating eyesore the mine creates. Deserts are wonderful, magical places, but this area isn’t particularly beautiful. It’s hot, dry and I imagine if weren’t for the mine, nobody would want to live here. The sandy landscapes we drove through past Calama were mostly interesting because of the mining activity.